International Student Homestays: Panacea or Pandora's Box?

By Net Assets posted 07-14-2015 03:35 PM

  
International Student Homestays

Risk Management |

For U.S. independent day schools and boarding schools alike—and economically as well as culturally—there is much to like about the potential for an international student “homestay” program.

Article by Heather J. Broadwater, Potomac Law Group

From the July/August 2015 Net Assets

Why consider international student homestays?

  • To increase tuition revenue from beyond the local community.
  • To enroll international students without entirely changing the nature of a school and its programs.
  • To enhance the multicultural experiences, competitiveness and perspectives provided to domestic students.

There is also much to give schools pause. Poorly screened “host families,” for instance, or unscrupulous companies involved in homestay arrangements. Potentially costly management and oversight responsibilities. And significant legal exposure in the event that harm comes to either an international student or a host family.

Fortunately, as interest in homestays has grown, so have the infrastructure and awareness necessary to avoid the problems that can arise from them. Schools faced with considering whether and how to implement a homestay program should do so carefully.

What is a Homestay?

In the context of independent schools, a homestay is a scenario in which a student who is a citizen and/or resident of another country enrolls at a U.S. independent school and is housed off-campus in the private residence of a “host family.” For students and their families, a homestay’s benefits can vary depending on factors such as the relative quality and challenges of their home educational systems, their desired English-language speaking skills, their higher education and career plans, and their desire to live with a family rather than in a dormitory.

Official statistics on homestays are hard to come by, but interest is rising anecdotally, perhaps even more than overall international student growth would suggest. At independent schools, international students increased from 2.6 percent of all students in the 2003–04 academic year to 3.2 percent by 2013–14, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. This trend is far more pronounced among colleges and universities, where international student numbers have soared from roughly 338,000 in the 1983–84 academic year to greater than 885,000 by 2013–14, according to the Institute of International Education.

With international students eager to enroll in U.S. schools, a confluence of factors is creating an environment ripe for the emergence of homestay programs. For starters, the same economic conditions that at times have jeopardized enrollment have also reduced the availability of financing and fundraising to support construction of new on-campus housing. For day schools in particular, homestays present an opportunity to enroll international students without entirely changing the nature of the school and its programs. For boarding schools, many of which long have enrolled international students, homestays can increase enrollment without the expense of augmenting on-campus housing. They may also be attractive to international parents who value as part of the U.S. educational experience living in a “typical American home environment.”

Are Homestays a Good Idea?

A homestay program may be a good idea for a school with the time and resources to design and implement a program that matches the level of risk and reward acceptable to the school. However, it may not be a good idea for a school facing pressure from one or two families to cobble together a program as a test-run.

Although homestays can be beneficial for independent schools, the risk-benefit analysis should reflect any school’s unique circumstances. A homestay program may be a good idea for a school with the time and resources to design and implement a program that matches the level of risk and reward acceptable to the school. However, it may not be a good idea for a school facing pressure from one or two families to cobble together a program as a test-run. The harsh reality is that the many steps involved in establishing a homestay program are just as onerous for one student as for a dozen students, where a sufficient financial return would be more likely to offset startup costs, and a “cohort” of students and families might be more likely to make the experience a positive one than a lone experiment would.

A homestay program is a series of relationships, the number and complexity of which depend in part on which aspects of the arrangement the school chooses to offer and/or manage. As with most decisions, this requires tradeoffs that balance potential reward with potential risk. Schools that drift into homestay arrangements without appropriate preparation likely will face greater legal exposure, as they are more likely to omit necessary steps or critical documents.

In any case, schools unsure of whether they can take on the risk of a homestay program should know that they generally are not obligated to offer such a program, or even to permit homestays privately arranged by parents. This might mean forgoing opportunities to increase enrollment, but it ultimately might be the best financial decision for a school unable to bear the cost and risk involved. For a day school with full enrollment, there might be little to no return on investment in establishing a homestay program. And, a boarding school with open residential spots might find it prudent to fill these slots before undertaking a program to house students in private residences.

What are the Specific Legal Risks?

In concept, homestays are simple: A student enrolls at a school and is housed at a private residence. The concept is so deceptively simple that many international parents have directly hired individuals or companies to provide hosting. Unfortunately, surging demand for these arrangements has allowed some unscrupulous individuals to mislead parents and mistreat students. In fact, some schools’ first forays into homestay programs begin by default, upon learning of international students living in deplorable conditions. These cases leave the schools with the difficult choice to either return the students to their home countries or hastily develop an alternate arrangement for the remainder of the academic year.

Each homestay placement involves a series of decisions and actions, any one of which has inherent risks. These include recruiting, screening and selecting international students; entering the enrollment contract; recruiting, screening and selecting the host family; obtaining necessary information and releases from each party and sharing as appropriate; collecting funds from the international family for the student’s regular tuition and fees; collecting the fees for the student’s room and board; monitoring the host family; serving as the intermediary between the international student/family and the host family; and handling reimbursements or stipends to the host family.

Civil law gives parties in homestay arrangements possible causes of action against a school, depending on the agreements between the parties and the school’s generally recognized duties. Just as a school might face a breach of contract claim or a negligence claim if it hires an employee who ultimately harms a student, a school might face similar claims if it matches a student and a host family, harm comes to either party, and the harm can be traced to the school’s failure to perform a contractual duty, or to perform a regulatory, statutory or common law duty that is not dependent on the existence or language of a contract.

To illustrate one of many potential nightmare scenarios, imagine a car accident in which the driver, an adult from a host family, has been drinking, and the international student is a passenger who suffers life-threatening injuries. Unbeknownst to the international student and parents, the host family adult had a history of DUI convictions in another state not covered by the background check the school conducted. Another scenario: An international student’s behavior at school causes alarm and discussion between teachers and administration, but the school fails to alert the host family because it is unsure of what information it may release to this family.

In other cases, the school may be the party seeking to enforce contractual obligations related to the homestay or to hold other parties accountable for breaches. The international nature of the relationship may make enforcement difficult.

How Can Schools Reduce These Risks?

When initially considering whether and how to develop a homestay program, a school should review with counsel all goals, concerns and thoughts on how to structure the program, including whether the parties will be limited to the school, the international student/family and the host family, or whether outside parties will be engaged to manage part or all of the relationships. Hiring a vendor to perform certain tasks may not shield the school from legal exposure related to the vendor’s performance. Even if the school includes in the vendor contract appropriate indemnification language, it still may face liability for issues related to the host family if the school breached a duty in its selection and oversight of the vendor.

The deliberate design of a homestay program includes taking the time to think through possible issues and scenarios. For example, if a school has both a boarding program and a homestay program, how does it make placement decisions? How do the preferences of students and parents influence the decision? During school breaks and holidays, who is responsible for the student? Is the host family required to include the student in vacations, and if so, at whose cost? What are the expectations of the host family with regard to the student’s transportation, meals and incidentals? Will homestays be available to students requiring financial aid? What is the process for moving a student if a homestay placement is unsuccessful? Moreover, what are the criteria for identifying an unsuccessful placement, and how does a move affect the financial arrangements between the parties?

One of the most important steps for reducing homestay legal risks is to ensure clarity between all parties about their respective rights and responsibilities. The risk a school may face for failing to conduct a background check will be greater if the other parties had reason to believe the school was conducting checks. Bear in mind that a school may have difficulty obtaining background information on a juvenile citizen of another country. If so, the school should ensure that the host family understands this difficulty and makes an informed decision as to whether to open their home to the student.

Depending on the circumstances, a school may benefit from measures like requiring full payment in advance or requiring a local signatory, and ensuring that the parties have read the relevant documents in a language they understand.

A related step is documenting the understandings and relationships between the parties. Documents may vary depending on the program’s structure and whether vendors are involved. At a minimum, however, they generally should include:

  • An enrollment contract between the school and the financially responsible parents/guardians (possibly with special provisions related to international enforcement and/or special fees for housing);
  • An agreement between the host family and the party engaging the host family;
  • Medical information forms and release (for obtaining medical care for the student, and assigning financial responsibility for medical costs);
  • Guidelines for the host family, the international student and the international parents;
  • Procedures for the recruitment, screening and selection of students and of host families (including applications and background checks).

When successfully implemented and carefully overseen, homestay programs can be richly rewarding to independent schools, international students/families and host families, as well as to the schools’ other students. What is critical is weighing the benefits and the risks specific to each school, and to carefully consider its resources, challenges and ability to prepare for involving international students in the community. After all, a poorly run program might do more damage to a school’s reputation and/or legal budget than any additional enrollment revenue could offset.

Heather J. Broadwater is a partner at Potomac Law Group, PLLC. A frequent speaker at NBOA events, Heather represents and advises independent schools throughout the country regarding employment, education and governance matters. She worked as a human resource manager prior to her graduation from Georgetown University Law Center. Contact her at hbroadwater@potomaclaw.com.


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